Las Vegas — Under the hot lights and cheering crowds at the Orleans Casino Arena, rancher Don Kish, a solidly built man with the rosy skin of good health and good humor, shoves back his cowboy hat and, shoulder-to-shoulder with half a dozen other cowboys, leans over the top rail of the chute. Sweat beads on Kish's nose while he tightens the nylon flank rope on his orneriest young bucking bull, a Brahma cross named Smooth Move.
It's the final day of the first-ever Bucking Bull Classic, the biggest-ever rodeo venue for young bulls, and Smooth Move isn't just Kish's baby -- born and raised on his Northern California farm -- he's Kish's best shot at winning $100,000. Professional bull rider Tater Porter, a tall drink of water out of Kenansville, Fla., straddles Smooth Move's nervous back, ready to rumble. And Kish has an awful lot depending on how the ride turns out.
Smooth Move is only 3 1/2 -- bulls typically don't enter the big-time rodeos until 5 -- and he's never been mounted by a veteran like Porter, or by anybody at all who might stay on his back for the eight seconds that constitute a complete bull ride. So anything could happen. If Smooth Move gives Porter a truly wild ride, or even plants him in the dirt in front of this feverish crowd of bull breeders, bull riders, investors and fans, Kish might go home this late October day with a fat wallet and an animal that everyone will watch for years to come. But Porter's a strong man with a history on strong bulls, and if he dominates Smooth Move -- pulling a lot of rope and gripping like iron with his long legs -- the bull might get so discouraged it'll just give up, setting its career back.
A flank rope runs under a bull's belly, in front of its hind legs -- although not, as some think, around the genitals -- and it agitates the animal in a way that incites him to kick like crazy. Every bull needs the rope set differently, and only Kish knows Smooth Move well enough to get it right. Too loose, and the bull might not kick; too tight, and those kicks might not thrust hard. With certain bulls, the flank rope also lets a bull contractor like Kish play a chess game with the rider. He can see which hand the guy holds on with and tweak the rope so the bull will spin the opposite direction.
It used to be that bull riding was just something cowboys did on their days off, but the sport has so grown in popularity that across town on this same weekend the Professional Bull Riders World Finals of the Built Ford Tough Series were being broadcast on NBC, the Outdoor Life Network and Telemundo. As a result, the bull breeding business is starting to look more and more like the thoroughbred racehorse industry, although with a difference: All the ag-school breeding tricks and fancy training focus not just on speed and power but on the sheer competitive urge to chuck cowboys out of an arena.
Which is why Tater Porter, tightening a second rope around his left hand -- this one is known as the bull rope, and it's the one Porter will hang onto -- is doing his darndest not to touch Smooth Move with his spurs. Smooth Move is an especially "rank" or "juicy" bull, and so new to the rodeo scene that the bright lights and loud rock 'n' roll ought to be scaring the heck out of him. He could easily start bucking while still in the chute. Another bull did this very thing earlier in the day and smashed its rider against a gate, splitting the man's head open.
Two more cowboys, known as bullfighters and dressed in American-flag shirts and torn shorts, crouch nearby in the dirt, ready to intervene if Smooth Move tries to trample or hook Porter after bucking him off. Then Porter nods his narrow chin, the sign he's ready for eight seconds of mayhem aboard an enraged 1,500-pound animal with horns. Yet another cowboy flings open the metal gate, Smooth Move explodes into the open, and the game is on.
In simpler times, rodeo organizers dragged mean animals out of feed lots and sale yards, talked gullible cowboys into climbing on, and then watched what happened. This approach worked especially well down in Oklahoma and Texas, where cattle roamed so much range that they were mostly mixed-blood maverick breeds, full of the wildness that makes bulls buck. But by the time Kish got into the business in the early 1980s, California ranchers had bred all the buck out of their cattle, concentrating on high-end dairy and beef breeds. The only breeder of bucking stock in the state had died, and only three of his animals were known to be living. When Kish contacted the owner of one, he learned the bull had just been canned, or slaughtered for meat, and when he tried to buy the second, the owner abruptly bailed on the deal. "So it came down to basically one animal," Kish says.